Heavy Rains Bring More Mudslides To China

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Flooding and landslides in northwestern China wrought devastation in the town of Zhouqu and killed more than 1,100 people. The rain has continued, and more mudslides are possible. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Associated Press reporter David Wivell.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

In northwestern China, more than 1,000 people have been killed in landslides and floods and hundreds more are missing. The town of Zhouqu was buried in mud. Some Chinese scientists are blaming the devastation on widespread deforestation in the area. Heavy rains are forecast in the next few days, which will make the situation even worse.

Associated Press reporter David Wivell has been in Zhouqu, and he says the disaster began with storms on Saturday night.

Mr. DAVID WIVELL (Reporter, Associated Press): Our understanding is that up in the mountains above the town, there was a mountain stream and because of a large rainfall, not only was there a lot more water coming through the stream, but it triggered a landslide, which blocked the stream and caused basically a natural reservoir to collect up above the village.

And then when the water eventually built up enough to break down the mud and rock barrier left by the landslide, the whole sludge of mud, rock, boulders and water just poured right down on the city and left a corridor of mud and destruction right through the center of town.

BLOCK: David, you've been in some of the worst affected areas. Why don't you describe what these places look like now?

Mr. WIVELL: The area surrounding the town looks quite normal. But once you get to the town there are a few meters of mud. It's covered the first floors buildings, it's pushed cars and tractors and motorcycles around and squashed them into buildings. And in parts where the direct flow was, the mud goes up to the third, fourth floor buildings. So you're often on a level with what used to be the third or fourth floor of a building or a hotel. But it's ground level now.

BLOCK: I've read about a couple of rescues yesterday. Is that right?

Mr. WIVELL: That's correct. There were two rescues yesterday on Wednesday here. There was initial round of frantic rescues right after the mudslide happened late, late on Saturday night. At that time, many people were pulled out from whatever was left of their houses or apartment buildings. But since Sunday, as far as we are aware, there have only been two people pulled out.

And that's because the mud not only crushes buildings and pushes buildings aside, but it doesn't leave any air pockets inside and it's viscous enough that it can seep into every nook and cranny.

So, many people are gone. And I think they'll never actually find many of the bodies. Some whole families were destroyed and there's nobody to even file a report. So it's quite possible that the official death toll, that's very much on the low side.

BLOCK: When you talk to people in this town, Zhouqu, what have they told you about how the government has responded?

Mr. WIVELL: I think by and large everybody is happy with the government's response. I think the government has learned from past disasters and really been putting emergency plans into effect. We cover quite a few disasters. I believe you were at the Sichuan earthquake. And we've also covered a string of disasters since then with most recently the Yushu earthquake, in a similar Tibetan ethnic area.

They've been learning from these and they've got a process and a system. The troops go in, the doctors go in, the rescue teams go in and they're well provided for in terms of equipment when they can get it in. There's a full-on effort for this. And I think that's definitely recognized by the people there.

BLOCK: Given the damage of what's happened there in Zhouqu, would the plan be to evacuate everyone, to relocate Zhouqu entirely?

Mr. WIVELL: I don't think so. From what we've seen, they are working very hard to clean out the mud that's there and return the city to its original shape. Stores are already starting to open up on the streets that just two days ago were two meters thick with mud. People have opened those doors, cleared the -whatever mud got in and some of them are opening back up and selling things to the rescuers.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Associated Press reporter David Wivell about the devastation from flooding and landslides in Zhouqu in northwestern China. David, thanks very much.

Mr. WIVELL: Thanks for calling me.

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